Jean-Paul Marat 1789

Letter to the Representatives of the Commune

Written: August 23, 1789;
Source: Correspondance de Jean-Paul Marat, recueillie et annotée par Charles Vellay. Charpentier et Fasquelle, Paris, 1908;
Translated: for by Mitch Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2006.

For a long time the English constitution passed as the masterpiece of human wisdom. And it must be said that before that of the United States was written there was none more perfect.

Few readers know it in depth, fewer still are in a position to judge it, but prejudice is in its favor, and thanks to Anglomania this prejudice is general. Nevertheless, it would be cruel if it were to serve as the model for the constitution that is being prepared for us. But this is what is to be feared if the work of the constitutional committee is adopted, for we are assured that this committee believes it can do no better than copy it in a servile fashion.

Struck by the numerous vices that corrupt it, I thought it was the obligation of a good citizen to examine it and to set a faithful analysis of it before the Estates General. A natural taste for politics led me to make a particular study of the English government. A ten-year stay there allowed me to observe it up close, to follow its progress, and to grasp its advantages and defects.

The tableau that I here offer to the French I already offered to the English themselves. It can be found in a work published in London in 1774 under the title “The Chains of Slavery.” Grant me permission to here recall the fate and the goal of that work, whose translation appeared 18 years before the original.

So strong an enemy of despotism that I hold it in horror, I had just followed with a worried eye the dispute between Wilkes and the cabinet of St. James. I watched with admiration as the public spirit deployed itself for a few moments against the attacks of the ministry, as it rigorously punished the violation of a citizen’s right to asylum, and set up a new barrier around the temple of freedom by proscribing general warrants. But this was only one less stain on the tableau.

In examining it closely it didn’t take long to realize that the English constitution, so many times retouched, included a mass of vices that would always leave the road open to ministerial prevarications, and which exposed public safety to the attacks of the cabinet: enormous vices which it seemed easy to remedy with the assistance of a few laws as simple as they are wise.

It was up to Parliament alone to bring about these salutary laws. In order to expect this of it, it was paramount that Parliament be composed of honest and wise men. The moment of its renewal approached and I believed the moment was favorable to think the court would lose its harmful influence over the elections.

The desire to defend the last asylum of freedom – which seemed to have taken refuge on the famous isle of Albion – inspired in me the design of awakening the attention of the English to so serious a subject by recalling them to the feeling for their rights through a tableau of the odious artifices employed by princes to enslave the people, as well as a tableau of the frightful evils that despotism always carries in its train.

The work was done; it only remained to have it published. One day I will show the obstacles that the cabinet put to its publication until the completion of elections. Though they caused me to lose the occasion to commit the English to honor themselves by the choice of their representatives, I didn’t completely fail in my object, which was the reform of the capital vices of the constitution.

As a result of a rigorous examination I had recognized that the source of corruption that reigned in the parliament of Great Britain was the direct influence the King exercised over the choice of members of the lower chamber, over the number of members of the upper chamber, and over the suffrage of both through the bait of the positions at his disposal and the largesse of which he can be the source.

It can doubtless be asked what largesse can the prince distribute with so restricted a civil list, given the multiplicity of crown positions and the enormity of their salaries, all of which he must pay for out of his own pocket. The answer is simple: it’s that the King, having the right to nominate the ministers and lords of the treasury, can with their hands dip into the public treasury for the execution of his ambitious projects, and dip there again to prevent the members of Parliament from learning of his depredations. Since a demand for the submitting of accounts only passes by a plurality of votes he is always master to oppose this by assuring himself of the majority of voters.

In order to remedy these abuses and the cruel evils that flow from them I proposed that four bills be decreed as fundamental laws of the state:

Remove from the crown the nomination of deputies that a multitude of small hamlets have the right to elect, something they succeed in doing by submerging the voters in the mass of their respective counties;

Remove from the crown the privilege of creating peers and then conferring this right on Parliament, itself restricted to using it only in favor of plebeians who have rendered signal services to the fatherland;

Exclude from parliament any citizen holding any position whatsoever that is at the disposition of the king;

Finally, decree that the verification of government accounts and the state of the public treasury be ordered whenever three members of the lower chamber make a motivated motion.

Barely had my work been made public than the ferment became general. The vices of the constitution made themselves felt. Their reform was wished for, above all a more equal representation of the people was wished for. This wish became the favorite toast of the popular societies. The question was brought up in Parliament. The bill was proposed and strongly supported. A short while later the third bill passed. Perhaps one day the others will meet the same fate.